We like to think of mysteries surrounding a city such as Bordeaux as being very much associated with the past, but thankfully there are als...

The ten modern-day mysteries of Bordeaux


We like to think of mysteries surrounding a city such as Bordeaux as being very much associated with the past, but thankfully there are also many modern-day mysteries that can be experienced very much in the present. Here are ten enigmas that haunt the good people of Bordeaux on a daily basis and which you too can enjoy in your own time. 

 

Where did all the public toilets go? 


Despite being a very tourist-friendly city, when those visitors (or, indeed, locals) need to respond to a call of nature, there are surprisingly few options. OK, so there are a few one-person-at-a-time “sanisette” installations dotted around the centre, but other than the inevitable wait while a previous user finishes up and the toilet is cleaned, it’s not exactly a very hospitable environment, and the piped music that plays while you’re inside is unreal. There are still a few “vespasienne” gentlemen-only urinals here and there (rue Robert-Lateulade and rue Paul-Broca, as pictured above, for instance), and back-to-basics toilets can be found in the Jardin de l’Hôtel de Ville and Parc Bordelais, but other than that the best option is to head for a shopping mall or a bar.

Which tram line is which at the Quinconces tram interchange station? 


Even when you’re familiar with the Bordeaux tram system, the Quinconces public transport hub can be a complex beast to master. There are four platforms that sit side by side with minimal visible indications as to which line is which, let alone which trams are heading north, south, east or west. To add an extra dimension to the challenge, one set of tracks is home to both lines C and D. One of the most spectacular sights in the city is that of passengers jumping off a south-bound Line B tram and rushing across the various lines to catch a south-bound Line C or Line D tram. It doesn’t always end well but makes for excellent spectator sport, which can also be enjoyed on a slightly smaller scale at Porte de Bourgogne station.

How many more Bistro Régent restaurants can the Metropole sustain?


Since its creation in 2010, the Bistro Régent concept of a minimalist menu and its “fameuse sauce Charmelcia” (so famous that I had to google the name, it’s not exactly entered anybody’s vocabulary) has developed quickly in and around Bordeaux, making the franchise’s founder Marc Vanhove a wealthy man and enabling him to branch out elsewhere in France, as well as displaying his logo on the shirts of the local Girondins de Bordeaux football team. In and around Bordeaux, it has got to the stage where just about every vacant building seems to have been turned into a Bistro Régent in recent years, resulting in an incredible statistic that I’ve just made up: wherever you are in the Bordeaux Métropole, you’re never more than a 10-minute walk from a Bistro Régent. That is either very reassuring or very scary. 

 

How do you get back to ground level from the Mériadeck quarter?

The Mériadeck quarter has often been covered on the blog. This large-scale urban experiment, which mainly developed throughout the 1970s and 1980s, is clearly unloved by the locals for various understandable reasons. One of the main specifics of the modern-day Mériadeck quarter is how raised walkways connect its different sections. In most parts it is fairly straightforward to get back down to ground level, but in some areas it can all be a bit hit and miss. Some of the secret stairwells are not signposted, some escalators are permanently out of order, and in places where you would expect to be able to get back down, you come up against a brick wall. 

 

How can Saint-Christoly shopping centre still be a thing?

If you’re in central Bordeaux on a busy Saturday afternoon and in search of some peace and quiet, just head to Saint-Christoly shopping centre. This 1980s complex, which is just a stone’s throw from place Pey-Berland and rue Sainte-Catherine, seems to have faded completely from the collective conscience of Bordeaux shoppers. Back in the day, a buzzing Fnac music and bookstore occupied the basement area and drew many visitors in search of the latest cultural offerings. Ever since the Fnac relocated to rue Sainte-Catherine, the mall has struggled to draw in customers other than those heading to the Monoprix which took Fnac’s place and the Picard frozen food store. Even before the 2020 health crisis, many of the smaller outlets were struggling here. Not sure how bright the future currently looks for Saint-Christoly*.

 

*Update: a Sud Ouest article published late December 2020 stated that the shopping centre was under new ownership and that it "will be subject to 'major restructuring' and its concept will be 'completely revisited'."  

 

Where exactly does the Pont Saint-Jean cycle path begin?

Pont Saint-Jean is the Bordeaux bridge that you never see on Instagram. The no-frills structure from the car-friendly 1960s also happens to provide a convenient and safe means of crossing the Garonne for pedestrians and cyclists alike. But the main challenge is simply to find how to access the bridge at all, given the density of the surrounding road network. Spoiler: the cycle path actually begins at an underpass towards the rear of a car park located opposite the Château Descas mansion, although the fact that the car park currently doubles up as a station where low-cost coach services depart and arrive makes it even more difficult to find the passageway. It is worth the effort though in order to take in the view across the Bordeaux skyline from the middle of the bridge! 

 

How come there are never any pile-ups between cyclists and pedestrians on the Garonne waterfront? 

The Garonne waterfront is one of the symbols of the transformation of Bordeaux and has become one of the go-to areas for a pleasant stroll. It also happens to be a magnet for joggers, skateboarders, rollerbladers and cyclists, and how there are not more collisions between people is one of the city’s greatest mysteries. Markings have nevertheless recently appeared in an attempt to at least channel the flows of walkers and joggers on the promenade which runs immediately alongside the river. However, the really hazardous hotspot is over by the multiple lanes of road traffic, where cyclists in a hurry are forced to cohabit with nonchalant pedestrians. What could possibly go wrong? Well, a great deal, although somehow it just about works. 

 

Why didn’t the Utopia cinema go all the way and just install their screens on the ceiling?

L'Utopia is the much-loved arthouse cinema that is the latest incarnation of what used to be Saint-Siméon church on Place Camille-Jullian. Some of the cinema’s smaller screens have been set up in an annex to the rear of the building, and so that all spectators can enjoy an unobscured view of the films, the screens have been installed at an impressive height. The stargazing position can initially seem surprising but you gradually get used to the concept. 

 

Why does nobody ever know where they are when exiting the UGC cinema? 

Sticking with cinemas, around the UGC complex on rue Georges-Bonnac, a regular sight is that of cinema-goers emerging from hidden exits with no idea of where they are. The cinema, installed in a building which used to house a theatre, comprises no less than 18 screens, some of which are at ground level, some upstairs, and some underground. The exits from the individual rooms lead to various spots around the complex and it invariably takes some time to find one’s bearings and work out where one has ended up. 

 

Will the anarchic queuing system at Mollat ever return?
 

There were not many upsides to the 2020 health crisis, but one may have been the renowned independent bookshop Mollat using floor markings to formalize the queue system at the checkouts, which are positioned along the side of a wall in a narrow corridor-like space ahead of an exit. In the old days, the queues had to stretch some way back before some kind of system naturally took shape. Before reaching that stage, several parallel lines would gather ahead of each checkout, with much jostling for position and discreet eye contact between customers as each opted for the checkout which they thought would progress the fastest. This inevitably resulted in a sense of injustice as three customers would get served at the neighbouring till in the time it took the person in front of you to purchase their single paperback. Will the anarchy of yesteryear return in the future or is the current formal queuing system here to stay? That, dear reader, truly is a veritable modern-day Bordeaux mystery.


> Ce dossier est également disponible en français !

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Invisible Bordeaux is proud to have made a repeat appearance in the latest issue of Bordeaux Moments , Bordeaux Tourism's most excellent...

Invisible Bordeaux tips featured in the latest 'Bordeaux Moments' magazine!

Invisible Bordeaux is proud to have made a repeat appearance in the latest issue of Bordeaux Moments, Bordeaux Tourism's most excellent quarterly bilingual travel and lifestyle magazine. 

 

In the article, I provide a few suggestions of unusual outings in and around Bordeaux to be enjoyed, you know, when we're allowed to get out and about once again. The list of tips take the reader from the Parc Floral to Pessac's Cité Frugès, along the Eau Bourde stream, and over to Lormont to the national social security museum

 

In non-lockdown times, the magazine - which features a host of great items including some interesting suggestions of activities to take in with children, a guide to winter getaways on the Bassin d'Arcachon, and advice on where to find houses whose façades include sculpted cats - can be picked up in local "offices de tourisme", hotel lobbies, and municipal buildings such as mairies

> Or else, you can simply read it by clicking here. Enjoy!

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Place Ravezies is one of the main entry points into Bordeaux proper and has long since been a public transport hub. Until 2012 it was also t...

Following the 'green line' from Place Ravezies to Le Bouscat via Bruges


Place Ravezies is one of the main entry points into Bordeaux proper and has long since been a public transport hub. Until 2012 it was also the location of Ravezies railway station, which was for many years the terminus of railway connections from the Médoc peninsula. That final portion of rail travel has in recent years switched from trains to a new branch of tram line C (with the creation of the tram-train connection in Blanquefort), and in 2015 the Ravezies station was dismantled for good, leaving nothing more than a derelict open space and the abandoned railway track.

The local authorities (Bordeaux Métropole with the Bruges and Le Bouscat town councils) put on their thinking caps, and soon came up with an idea to embellish the area in a way that also tied in with the Métropole’s "55 000 hectares pour la nature" programme aimed at incorporating and preserving nature and greenery in amongst new urban developments. The "Ligne verte" project quickly took shape! 




The brief involved converting 3.1 kilometres of the former line into a very eco-friendly walkway/cycle path, connecting Place Ravezies with residential quarters of Le Bouscat, with various low-key sights and activities to take in along the way. And, although work is still in progress and the "green line" is not quite the finished product, the walkway opened to the general public this year, so it made sense to head along and check it out.

The first major challenge though was simply reaching the start of the green line at Ravezies. The area located by what used to be the station is a car park that is a Tetris-style mass of automobiles that has to be ploughed through Indiana Jones-style to reach the path, which at this point in time is not signposted.

 

The entrance is... somewhere in the background of this shot!

Wooden barriers have been positioned at the entrance to the walk, and a handful of surviving poles, buffers and raised platforms serve as a reminder of the place’s past life. Before setting off, I attempted to replicate the photo I’d taken in 2012 around the time when the station was decommissioned.



Above: the view in 2012.
The same view today...

There was soon another reminder of the path’s railway heritage with the "petit train de Ravezies", a small wooden steam train/play area designed for children to get a train driver’s eye view of the track! (See picture at top of article.) The former lines remain visible, embedded into the surface of the path, and before long the walkway passed under a series of metal arches that previously held the overhead electric cables.

Another brand new children’s play area appeared, this time comprising swings, a hut and a slide, although this particular blogger got a bit more excited about the nearby sight of "le bassin de stockage des eaux de pluie Béquigneaux", one of the Métropole’s many defences against flooding in the area, there to stock excess rainwater whenever required, as detailed in a previous Invisible Bordeaux item about the network of "detention basins". The Béquigneaux flood plain, created in 1987, is an extensive beast, and can reportedly stock up to 102,800 cubic metres of water.


Part of the magnificent (and reassuringly dry) Béquigneaux flood plain.

Other than that, the surrounding landscape was made up of private allotments, back gardens and high-rise apartment blocks in the mid-distance, until it was broken up by a rather cool BMX dirt track that was being put to the test by a number of young riders. Before long, the pathway hooked up with the new tram line around the delightfully-named "La Vache" station and neighbourhood, with the grounds of a Bouscatais mansion on one side and one of Bruges’s municipal cemeteries on the other. Let’s just say there was a definite sense of space in spite of the urban environment, and the remaining walls blocking the view did not appear to be the most durable - but for now they do form great raw materials for street artists.


From then on, the disused railway line reappears and the path runs alongside it until, when reaching a bend, it comes to an abrupt, unexpected and, yes, premature end. There was no choice other than to leave the pathway, which I was happy to find naturally leads into the Gourribon housing estate, which has already enjoyed a starring role on the blog. By winding back towards the former railway line, there were promising signs that a further stretch of the green line appears to be in the making, and that will ultimately link up this area with Le Bouscat’s avenue de la Libération. The information panel on display promised that this "Phase 5" would be complete in 2020, but I think we’re all collectively prepared to provide extra leeway to anything that should have been delivered in 2020…


The "green line" comes to a sudden and unspectacular end here.
Information panel promising an additional stretch.

How does Invisible Bordeaux rate this new "Ligne verte", then? Well, it’s an interesting initiative and no doubt the residents of the Gourribon estate are delighted to now have such a pleasant direct connection with Place Ravezies! It’s most definitely a very enjoyable walkway but is a touch short as far as cycle rides go. The three kilometres whizz by and, when you consider that the standout visual delight is an emergency rainwater reservoir, then you just know that it’s never going to be be a serious competitor in those online "The World’s Greatest Bike Rides" listings. The message therefore is walk rather than ride! But fair play to everyone involved in creating this linear channel that provides a peaceful pathway running between Bruges and Le Bouscat, and is an innovative way of bringing another old railway track back to life.

> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: former Ravezies railway station, place Ravezies, Bordeaux (departure point).
> Cet article est également disponible en français !

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Invisible Bordeaux recently picked up a series of postcards showing different stages of a funeral procession through the streets of the city...

The day 50,000 lined the streets of Bordeaux to honour the city’s archbishop, Cardinal Lecot


Invisible Bordeaux recently picked up a series of postcards showing different stages of a funeral procession through the streets of the city centre in the early years of the 20th century. The event was clearly a big deal, as the pictures showed enormous crowds lining the route, with many people also peering out from windows and balconies to pay their final respects. This was in fact the city’s final goodbye to Cardinal Victor Lecot. So who was Cardinal Lecot and why was his funeral such a momentous event?

Victor Lucien Sulpice Lecot (or Lécot) was born in January 1831 in north-eastern France. Aged 24 he became a priest in Compiègne, to the north of Paris, ahead of being ordained bishop of Dijon (in 1886). Then, in June 1890, he was appointed to be archbishop of Bordeaux, at a time when the Catholic church was stronger than ever in the city, with new congregations coming together in all quarters (he consecrated Saint-Louis-des-Chartrons in 1895) and the church’s influence even seeping into the press through the publication of Le Nouvelliste de Bordeaux et du Sud-Ouest… renowned for its royalist, anti-Republican tendencies!

Lecot remained archbishop of Bordeaux until his death but was also elevated to cardinal in 1893 by Pope Leo XIII, and appointed cardinal-priest to Santa Pudenziana basilica in Rome the following year. He was one of the members of the conclave that elected Pius X, and was himself Papal Legate at celebrations held in Lourdes in 1908 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the supposed appearances of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous.

In France, the start of the twentieth century was a tumultuous period, with the official split between Church and State (and the start of the French Republic’s notable secular status, or “laïcité”) occurring in 1905 after 25 years of embattled debate opposing different views of the role of the Church. As you might imagine, Lecot was very much on the side of those wanting to retain close ties between Church and State, whilst also striving to do everything in his powers to avoid any form of conflict even if he was unable to prevent mass protests from being held.

And tensions were still high when Lecot died on December 19th 1908 in Chambéry, in eastern France. His funeral was held eleven days later, on December 28th, in Bordeaux. The authorities were aware that the funeral procession would draw mourners in their thousands, but also that the event could easily spark trouble.

Top - The funeral procession on Place de la Bourse. Bottom - The horse-drawn hearse carrying the coffin.

The most complete account of the event has been written by one Annie Ribette and can be read on the Cahiers d’Archives website. Ribette notes that the following day’s edition of Le Nouvelliste reported that nearly 2,000 men (soldiers and gendarmes) were in position from 7am onwards to keep the crowds under control along the route of the funeral cortege and to prevent intruders from infiltrating the procession (a special laissez-passer was required in order to join the ranks of the procession).

Ribette’s report features many archive documents, including the official laissez-passer, which records that Lecot’s corpse was scheduled to be removed from Notre-Dame church at 9am. Photographic evidence suggests that the procession then worked its way towards Place de la Comédie, along Cours de l’Intendance, down rue Vital-Carles (where the Archbishop of Bordeaux’s former official residence was located, although it had become home to Gironde’s prefect... in itself a massive source of tension), and then on to place Pey-Berland, no doubt finishing up at Saint-André cathedral, although it is unclear whether Lecot’s remains were immediately assigned to the tomb which is now his.  


Top - The funeral procession moves along Cours de l'Intendance, with many onlookers peering down from windows and balconies. Bottom - The Pontifical Swiss Guard was on hand.

It is thought that 50,000 people were present along the route to pay their final respects to Lecot, although the heavy-handed security came in for a great deal of criticism. Annie Ribette refers to the socialist union and revolutionary political newspaper La Bataille reporting on the “state of siege” in Bordeaux, adding that those people “who had travelled from all parts of the city and region were prevented from saluting the remains of the Cardinal of Bordeaux. The troops who had barricaded the city’s streets had been ordered to turn their backs to the cortege. Those honours could have been dispensed without preventing the public from attending the funeral”. That same newspaper underlined the fact that Lecot’s passing was in no way acknowledged by the French Republic, as since the “law of separation”, ecclesiastical dignitaries like Cardinal Lecot no longer enjoyed any form of official status in the eyes of the Republic.


The procession reaches Place Pey-Berland. 

Even without this Republican recognition, there was a definite sense locally of how historic the occasion was. Several requests for authorisation were submitted with a view to capturing the event on film, this being the early days of cinematography. Looking at the wide angle photographs of the procession on Place de la Comédie, it is striking how many photographers and filmmakers are present. But beyond the stills such as those featured here, how much of that movie coverage has survived, if any?


A closer look at the group of photographers and cinematographers gathered on Place de la Comédie.

And what traces remain of Cardinal Lecot himself in the city? Of course, the most symbolic and prominent memorial is none other than the cardinal’s monumental tomb inside Saint-André cathedral. His first name was also given to Saint-Victor church on rue Mouneyra in Bordeaux, founded in 1905 while Lecot was still Archbishop of Bordeaux, although the current edifice was built during the Second World War period and finally consecrated in 1947. Oh, and there is also a street named after him in Bordeaux and a "Cardinal Lecot" bus stop in Blanquefort, which is no doubt exactly what the great man would have wanted.

Above - Cardinal Lecot's final resting place inside Bordeaux cathedral.

Above - Saint-Victor church on rue Mouneyra. Below - The ultimate accolade: Lecot has his own posthumous bus stop in Blanquefort.

And, of course, what also remains are those incredible pictures of the city, showing scenes that Bordeaux is unlikely to see again anytime soon, and scenes that alone do not tell the full story!

> Locate Saint-Victor church on the Invisible Bordeaux map: rue Mouneyra, Bordeaux.
> Cardinal Lecot picture source: Wikipedia
> As stated throughout, the most complete account of this event can be found on the Cahiers d'Archives website
> Ce dossier est également disponible en français ! 

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Invisible Bordeaux was one of a number of local structures and players who contributed to an innovative project focused on heritage in the a...

Introducing Bordeaux Métropole’s rather lovely local heritage card games


Invisible Bordeaux was one of a number of local structures and players who contributed to an innovative project focused on heritage in the area conducted this year by Bordeaux Métropole in conjunction with Deux Degrés, the publishing house and “agence de médiation” who have already occasionally featured on the blog (and, by the way, I’m a big fan of everything they do). The deliverables were recently unveiled and they consist of two highly desirable sets of cards, one being a “Happy Families” game and the other a classic deck of playing cards.

The twin objective of the project, codenamed “Vous avez une carte à jouer”, was to be able to identify and showcase some familiar and some lesser-known places of interest throughout the metropole, as well as providing a platform for local heritage associations and players to work together and get to know each other. The initiative was launched within the framework of the wider European Atlas World Heritage network aimed at boosting the sustainability of urban heritage (the other participating cities are Edinburgh, Florence, Porto and Santiago de Compostela), and the target was to complete it all in time for Bordeaux’s 2020 World Heritage week events in mid-September.

Above - Panels on display on Place de la Bourse explaining all about the Atlas World Heritage initiative during the city's 2020 World Heritage week.

Initially, the plan drawn up early in 2020 by Bordeaux Métropole and Deux Degrés was to hold meetings and collaborative workshops but - as you may have guessed - the pandemic-induced lockdown forced them to substantially revise their plans. Instead, the whole project shifted online and they conceived interactive maps so that those who wished to take part could locate points of interest and provide the reasoning behind their inclusion.

No less than 60 structures took part, identifying 400 points of interest, a shortlist of which was put to a vote in which 110 participants chose the subjects they thought to be the most significant. Then, by combining those results with other balanced choices to ensure every Bordeaux Métropole town was fairly represented, Deux Degrés got to work on producing the two card games.

Above - Even my hometown of Saint-Aubin-de-Médoc gets its own cards. These two sights are within walking distance of the Invisible Bordeaux household.

The resulting “Happy Families” game is aimed at a younger audience and has gathered points of interest into seven categories… or, indeed, families: nature, industry, water, habitat, monuments, contemporary architecture and châteaux. Each family comprises six members, the corresponding 42 cards featuring illustrations produced by the immensely talented Julianne Huon - whose style has become so synonymous with the distinctive Deux Degrés graphic look and feel over the years - and a brief overview of associated facts and figures. Interestingly, if the cards are laid out face down, they can also be positioned puzzle-like to form a far larger illustration reminiscent of the Bordeaux Métropole landscape.



The standard 52-card game (or rather 54 including the two jokers) provides a highly varied guide to some of the area’s well- and less well-known sights, along with a leaflet so that players can read thumbnail information about each one. The illustrations are the work of the also fabulously talented Jean Mallard. He is a young Paris-based artist with family in the area, but was not necessarily familiar with many of the sights. During a brief post-lockdown window, he was able to spend two days exploring the metropole and taking in the subjects shortlisted for the project. The resulting pictures capture much of that bright-eyed sense of discovery associated with seeing places for the first time. Mallard employed a variety of techniques, although the use of watercolour proves dominant. He also voluntarily kept to a relatively limited palette of colours in order to strike a degree of consistency across the cards. And to inject some life into the pictures, he always ensured there was some kind of human presence represented.

During an event held in September at the Maison Cantonale in the Bastide quarter (which itself features in the deck of cards) to present the finalized project to the network of contributors, both Julianne Huon and Jean Mallard were present to provide a first-hand account of their work, alongside Deux Degrés’ Pierre-Marie Villette and Bordeaux Métropole’s Anne-Laure Moniot. Jean Mallard even brought along the original artwork, i.e. all fifty-plus postcard-sized pieces which showed just how intricate and detailed the individual creations were.


Above - Illustrator Jean Mallard with the original pictures. On the right is his depiction of Stade Chaban-Delmas, included in the card deck under its former name, Parc Lescure.

The two sets have initially been produced as limited runs of just 500 units and were distributed throughout the World Heritage week from a special pop-up installation/mini-exhibition on Place de la Bourse. Beyond that, sets will be provided to libraries throughout the Métropole. Further down the line, a commercially-produced run may take shape… I for one certainly hope so.


Above - The pop-up exhibition on Place de la Bourse.

In the meantime, here at Invisible Bordeaux I am very proud to have been able to contribute to the project, and delighted to have seen some of my submissions (such as Bordeaux’s twin city gardens, Le Haillan’s Parc du Ruisseau, and the lone locomotive left positioned at the former railway station in Saint-Médard-en-Jalles) make it into the final sets of cards, all of which are really rather magnificent.
 


It all goes to show there’s very much an audience for local heritage, or petit patrimoine as they say in French… and it’s great to see Bordeaux Métropole is taking this very seriously as well as looking to bring local heritage players together on projects of the like. Congratulations to everyone involved!


> Deux Degrés website: www.deuxdegres.net

> Ce dossier est également disponible en français !

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An interesting post recently published on social media included a 1970s clip of a hovercraft criss-crossing the Gironde estuary between Lam...

The Gironde estuary hovercraft story and the Pauillac connection

An interesting post recently published on social media included a 1970s clip of a hovercraft criss-crossing the Gironde estuary between Lamarque and Blaye, on the route that is more naturally associated with its small-scale car ferries. This was news to me, and investigating further also enabled me to uncover the significant link between hovercraft and the town of Pauillac. How was this all connected, and where shall we begin?

The natural starting point is the story of one of France’s most emblematic innovators, Jean Bertin (1917-75). Among other breakthroughs, Bertin invented the technique of thrust reversal used by many jet aircraft to slow down upon landing. He was also the man behind the famous failed experimental “Aérotrain” hovertrain concept developed between 1965 and 1977 (which at the time lost out to the TGV high-speed train concept, but is not dissimilar to the hyperloop projects that are currently taking shape).


 Jean Bertin (photo source: Aéroclub Jean Bertin) and his famous failed Aerotrain project. And a combine harvester.

As early as 1955, Bertin founded his own company, Bertin et Cie, and in time created dedicated subsidiaries for his various ventures. He set up one for the Aérotrain project and, in 1965, he formed SEDAM (Société d'Etude et de Développement des Aéroglisseurs Marins), operating out of Marignane, near Marseille, with a manufacturing facility close to Bayonne. SEDAM was similarly driven by air cushion technology, and was specifically focused on the development and production of what would become its “Naviplane” range of amphibious hovercraft.

SEDAM’s first key deliverable was the N300 30-ton hovercraft. Two units were produced, the Baie des Anges, configured to transport cargo, in 1967, with the Croisette coming the following year and designed to carry up to 90 passengers. Both entered into service on the Mediterranean coast, shuttling between Nice airport, Cannes, Saint-Tropez, Monaco and San-Remo in Italy. SEDAM also produced a much smaller model, the N102, designed to carry two crew and 12 passengers. It never achieved any significant success, despite extensive commercial trials in different situations such as in the Mediterranean resort of La Grande Motte, as a means of reaching isolated beaches.


An N300 in Nice (photo source: Reddit) and an N102 somewhere near La Grande Motte (photo source: Le Maxi-Mottain).


And the story goes that in 1971, the Baie des Anges N300 was acquired by the Gironde département and converted in order to be used in conjunction with the existing ferry for the regular Gironde estuary crossing between Blaye and Lamarque, as well as heading to Pauillac and sometimes Bordeaux (to a hoverport reportedly located just by Pont d’Aquitaine). It could carry four vehicles and 38 passengers and it took the hovercraft just five minutes to get from one bank to the other on its primary route. As such it functioned between July 1971 and December 1975, totting up 20,000 crossings and 4,000 operating hours.

Why did the council revert back to a more orthodox 100% ferry service? This is unclear, although three factors could easily be pinpointed. Firstly, the high levels of noise whenever the Naviplane arrived and departed, particularly in the densely-populated town of Blaye, was undoubtedly unpopular with residents. Secondly, the ferry alternative boasted a far greater capacity, able to carry 40 vehicles and 350 passengers. And thirdly, the Baie des Anges became synonymous with a couple of unfortunate incidents. In one, the Naviplane’s front door had not been securely closed and, upon discovering this, the fast-moving craft was brought to a sudden halt by the pilot. The door opened, water flowed in and a luxury Citroën ended up in the estuary. Happily, nobody was hurt. The other, during a night-time crossing, saw the hovercraft colliding with a stationary radar mast approaching Lamarque, causing structural damage to the craft.


Souvenir postcard (source: Aeromed).

This is where the hovercraft landing platform was in Lamarque. It is now home to "La Paillote de Steph".
 
According to some reports, this would appear to be the approximate location towards the base of Pont d'Aquitaine suspension bridge where hovercraft would land in Bordeaux.

Meanwhile, come 1973, SEDAM was struggling to make ends meet but began working on a far more substantial, 260-ton model, the N500, the largest passenger hovercraft of its time, and which was designed to carry up to 400 people, 55 cars and five coaches at speeds of up to 70 knots (around 130 kilometres per hour). Two firm orders were secured for this more ambitious project, from the Gironde département (with a view to the craft operating the Royan-Le Verdon crossing at the mouth of the Gironde estuary), and the SNCF (to be deployed on its English Channel route). There were further commercial leads from elsewhere, such as Canada, and for the route between Nice and Corsica.

Possibly drawn to the invigorating air of the Gironde estuary, in December 1975, SEDAM relocated to Pauillac, operating from a large estuary-side warehouse just to the north of the town. And Pauillac was therefore where work on the N500 commenced, conducted by one Paul Guienne, who had also directed studies on the Aérotrain project. SEDAM began building the two inaugural Naviplanes: N500-1, for the Gironde order, became known as Côte d’Argent, while the SNCF’s N500-2 was originally to be called Côte d’Opale but was subsequently given the name Ingénieur Jean Bertin as a homage to Bertin, who passed away during that period. But it would not be plain sailing for the two N500s…  


The Côte d’Argent’s successful maiden flight took place on the estuary in April 1977, but during minor repair work (ahead of a ministerial visit) being carried out by SEDAM subcontractors the following month, a technician stepped onto a bare lightbulb, which exploded and set alight a spilt bucket of adhesive solvents. The whole craft caught fire and was totally destroyed in under an hour, all this occurring just a few days before it was set to be inaugurated by Prince Charles at a lavish ceremony. This tragic end is detailed, complete with archive photos, here.


Picture showing the aftermath as released by the investigation unit, one of many photos featured on the dedicated Naviplane website.

After an epic voyage from Pauillac to Boulogne-sur-Mer that took 25 hours with countless refueling stops along the Atlantic and Channel coasts, the Ingénieur Jean Bertin entered into service in 1978 with Seaspeed, the SNCF/British Rail joint venture, operating alongside two British SR.N4 “Mountbatten class” hovercraft, and enabling the Channel to be crossed in under 30 minutes (including a record-breaking 22’15” Dover-Calais crossing which was never officially registered because no adjudicators were present!).

In 1981 the Ingénieur Jean Bertin was transferred to Hoverspeed (the result of a merger between Seaspeed and Hoverlloyd) and was widely refurbished in response to demands issued by SNCF, re-entering service for a short period in 1983 before being decommissioned then generally left to rot and be broken up in Boulogne-sur-Mer in October 1985. (More generally, Channel hovercraft services were soon to enter a downward spiral with the opening of the Channel tunnel in 1994. The last cross-Channel hovercraft was withdrawn from service in 2000.) 

The Ingénieur Jean Bertin N500 arriving in Dover. Photo source: Wikipedia


Back in Pauillac, SEDAM was not doing well. The Gironde département had withdrawn its sole order, choosing instead to redirect finances to more urgent requirements (road infrastructure and schools). In addition, the SNCF would also not be providing any further custom, as they had come to regard the British SR.N4 as a superior craft. Towards the end of the 1970s, the company was taken over by the Dubigeon-Normandie shipbuilders, but folded completely in 1983, its final project no doubt being the refurbishment of an N102 which had been purchased many years previously by an Egyptian entrepreneur based in the United Arab Emirates.

Despite the company’s collapse, the Pauillac warehouse still contained the two retired N300 hovercraft and four N102s. An auction was held in May 1983 and a Bordeaux scrap metal merchant purchased the N102s. A restaurant owner acquired the Baie des Anges with the plan of converting it into a restaurant in Pauillac but was not authorized to do so. Plans to sell it on came to nothing so the craft stayed put in the warehouse. The Croisette was bought by a Pauillac scrap metal merchant but it too remained on site. Towards the end of 1983, both were scrapped completely and the SEDAM story came to a quiet end.

So, what remains today of the hovercraft adventures of Pauillac and SEDAM? Well, in Pauillac, the SEDAM warehouse is now used by the Baron Philippe de Rothschild wine company for storage ahead of distributing their produce worldwide. Across the road from the massive hangar and the wide space that is now a car park (where that fateful 1977 fire destroyed N500-1), a large concrete platform serves as a reminder of where the hovercraft were launched on to the estuary. The picture below was taken from that platform, looking back towards the SEDAM hangar.

 Thanks to the ever brilliant IGN Remonter le Temps website, it is possible to see how things used to be. First, here is the scene in 1976, with what appears to be two N102s stationed outside.

And here is the same view in 1977... with a single N500, in all likelihood Ingénieur Jean Bertin.

Of the N102s which ended up in the hands of a Bordeaux scrap metal merchant, in recent years two were recovered from their resting place in Villenave d’Ornon by a group of enthusiasts with a view to renovating and restoring them. That adventure is lovingly detailed here and, to cut a long story short, the two wrecks have been turned into a rejuvenated N102 Naviplane which now sits proudly on permanent display outside the Château de Savigny-lès-Beaune in the Burgundy region of France, as this Google satellite view of the area below right clearly shows!

Left picture source: hangarflying.eu

Finally, while the use of hovercraft to transport large numbers of passengers has faded over the years (although services do still operate on routes such as that connecting Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight), the technology continues to prove its worth in complex military situations or to deal with rough terrain where no other type of craft is capable of operating. And, who knows, it may one day make a comeback, including in Gironde where the subject often comes up as a potentially effective solution to connect central Bordeaux with Blaye and the tip of the estuary!

 

In the meantime, interest in hovercraft has anything but waned. There are many archive clips available on Youtube, there is a fantastic website dedicated to Naviplanes alone, and in this social media age you can even find a Facebook page that talks about nothing other than the Jean Bertin N500 Naviplane!

So get googling, check out naviplane.free.fr and investigate for yourself the weird and wonderful world of hovercraft, the then-futuristic whirr of which was, for a few years in the 1970s, a common sound on the banks of the Gironde estuary! 

 

> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: Former SEDAM hovercraft factory, Pauillac; Bac Lamarque-Blaye ferry port, Lamarque; Bac Blaye-Lamarque ferry port, Blaye.
> Much of the information in this piece was found on the incredible naviplane.free.fr website, which is heavily recommended reading!
> Top photo source: Aeromed
> Cet article est également disponible en français !

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